Laughing Last

“What about bringing back the narcoleptic clown?” Anderson proposed, spinning his pen in that annoyingly practiced way that makes it look unconscious. “We haven’t used him in months. We can squeeze four more minutes of mindless laughs out of him.”
The other heads at the table barely shifted in response. Anderson was always keen on recycling shit that generated even the weakest chuckle from the increasingly despondent studio audience.

“Well, what’s been going on in the news?” Ramirez offered, grasping at straws in the silence of the writer’s-blocked table.
“Same shit as last week, man. Stocks are down, crime is up, and our fingers are jammed into other countries where they don’t belong,” Radley snapped back with finality; the table fell silent.

The six of them avoided each other’s eyes as they sipped from their coffee mugs, pensively musing into space or searching for the next great sketch in the swirling cream being swallowed by their morning fuel. Brent had been quiet since he’d sat down, nursing his second hangover of the week. The yellow legal pad staring back at him was blank, save the test scratches of his pen across the header: faint, then stuttered, then fully black and streaking with the promise of unrealized hilarity.

He incrementally slid his gaze across the boardroom table, taking in the artificial grain of the pale beige table and eventually reaching the empty lines of Miranda’s pad, a comfortingly blank mirror of his own. He avoided raising his eyes higher than that glaring sheet, mainly due to his fear of distracting himself even further in the repetitive swell of the white shirt above her beating chest.

They were generally a good team, but six minds can only roll around in the mud of comedy for so long before it turns back into dirt – worthless, irritating, and disposable. The mid-season dip in viewers hadn’t turned around as they had all been expecting; in fact, the perennial ratings swell of late April was already three weeks overdue. Brent hadn’t noticed, nor did he particularly care. He had participated in a baker’s dozen of identical roundtable discussions on blearing Wednesday mornings across Hollywood and each of those “artistic experiments” had all meant exactly one thing to him – a paycheck.
His lack of longevity had nothing to do with his ability to write comedy; he had journals full of fleshed out scenes that had kept audiences rolling for years of syndicated pleasure. Two of his own sketches for “LOL” and “Side Splitters” had earned him a clap on the back from head honchos who barely remembered his name and a healthy modicum of respect from the other un-showered writers that populated the Clusterfuck Conference every workday between episode airings.

No, his inability to remain gainfully employed came from his utter hatred of these vomit sessions of hackneyed ideas if he didn’t have a savage headache or a healthy buzz for protection. He didn’t fear for his own safety, of course. The other supposedly sentient clumps of comedic “genius” on either side of him needed the protection. When his pen wasn’t scribbling banter that might elicit a thoughtful smirk of appreciation, it was poised to puncture the throat of the next person that suggested an overused flashback joke or yet another impersonation of a particularly idiotic political newbie.

His previous employers had called him “alienating” and “stand-offish”, claiming that he was the opposite of a team player who struggled (or completely failed) to accept constructive criticism or “tweaking” from other writers on various now-cancelled shows. In his exit interviews, he never offered an objection to their explanations. He was generally surprised by how long the shows had put up with him, assuming that his occasional bouts of brilliance made them question the wisdom of cutting him loose too soon. Inevitably, the cost/benefit ratio always ran out for his bosses and their bean counters at approximately the same diminishing rate as his patience and penchant for civility.

It wasn’t that Brent had a problem with authority, nor even with ignorance. He simply couldn’t stand knowing that his carefully crafted words were being spat out and improvised over by a hyped-up shit with a single Hollywood credit to his name and a free Friday night to film some sketch comedy. It was practically pro-bono work for this revolving door of morons; god knows it was free publicity for a career that would likely fall flat before he or she even shamelessly sniffed the asshole of someone who had experienced an “Oscar buzz”.
Yet, as he had feared some Sarlaccian pit always would, this particular place of employment had grabbed his heart, if not his head, and seduced him into eleven months (Fuck me, at least it hasn’t been a year) of endless spitball Sundays in the same slightly wet room. It wasn’t the surfaces that were perpetually damp; the people, the air, and the words they bandied back and forth across the table were limp with disinterest, like the boring section of a newspaper you never feel guilty using to clean up stray coffee rings. The Want Ads, if you’re lucky.

The moisture wasn’t his main point of attraction, to be clear. The majority of the sub-human perspiration producers in the room could have literally combusted in the midst of a brainstorming meeting and he would have hardly batted an eye unless their ashes blew in Brent’s direction. Every morning when he dragged himself out of the unwashed embrace of his matchbox loft, the magnetic draw towards the office had little to do with gainful employment or some ultimate purpose in the conventional sense of art. He preferred to think of himself as Sagan’s little wet dream, a pale, beige, sentient dot maneuvering in the same area of space as the (black) hole he thought about more than breath, movement, or life it-fucking-self.

The problem was, Miranda wasn’t all that funny. She had her moments…those gleaming seconds of wit that genuinely lit up the team’s collectively jaundiced eyes and garnered appreciative nods from at least half the table. However, she didn’t like pushing too far, which is the precise distance of stupidity and callous indulgence that the show was basically founded upon.

In his eleven months of working in this literal dead end, there had been three female writers. Two of them had shown real promise, and contributed some sincerely snarky and memorable bits to the team. Unfortunately, their knee-jerk rating as aesthetic 6’s had probably gotten them the job, due to the slobbering scum that gave the final “okay” for any new hire, but their standards, morals, and general quality as human beings made them unwilling to slide into the undercarriage of managerial filth. In other words, they had rejected his advances and had subsequently been let go. The justifications for their firing had hardly even shown creativity; Brent’s former sleaze-ball check signers had at least tried to create a believable premise for the firing of average prudes who loved Jesus, liked clean comedy, and hated alcohol over 4.3%.

However, the third member of the female writing triumvirate (and the only one still employed) was Miranda. She had strolled in the door five months ago, slammed an out-of-date Macbook the color of manila folders and coffee ice cream on the conference table and punched his heart in the face.  Her first impression hadn’t been an exception to any rule; Miranda had slouched into every day at the office in the same way, disheveled, disdainful, and disproportionately more attractive than any other woman Brent had ever seen. He had seen beautiful women from afar, mainly whilst walking purposefully to various jobs he tried to pretend he didn’t have, but Miranda was in his sphere; we’re peers, goddamit! He liked to imagine why her computer was so faded, perhaps from a summer in Morocco or Istanbul, where the sand had dusted the white to its current tanned hue, but another part of his heart hoped it was from depressive chain-smoking in a shitty apartment that largely resembled his own.

The latter was true. Miranda had never left the country.

Yet, despite her outward appearance, which could only be described as lazy bohemian, as though she had accidentally fallen into de rigueur fashion through a negligence-fueled time warp, she possessed an air of confidence and a dismissive aura that intoxicated the mouth-breathers surrounding her every morning. She was cool incarnate; the impossible lovechild of Tina Fey and James Dean. For the first month of her employment, Brent’s eyes were trained to his yellow legal pad like a Pavlovian slave, unwilling to drag themselves thirty degrees past the lower dumpling rims of her breasts. His head was like the swiveling skull of a hula girl hood ornament during a salt flat speed run – side-to-side and straight ahead. Up and down meant death.

Their first eye contact occurred on May 7th, a day that would live in infamy, not because he finally manned up and connected with the proverbial windows to her soul, but because the gastrointestinal gods had destined him to be her unwanted accomplice for a small moment. During a particularly heated argument over whether the callback Cheesehead character should crack a joke about a recently indisposed athlete’s sexual indiscretions, a minor eruption shook his vicinity of the table. The sound, outside the normal lexicon of boring chatter, had dragged him from the semi-conscious state he was enjoying and he looked up. Normally, he only raised his head when he knew that Miranda was busy scribbling intently, directing a comment (and her face) towards someone else, or laughing (which meant that she threw her head back for at least 3-5 seconds, no matter how profound or pathetic the joke happened to be…she had a standard response to humor).

However, her unexpected emanation in the fifth week of his knowing her was the first time they had shared an inside joke, although he doubted that she viewed it the same way. He heard it, she knew it, and their eyes locked together for the first time in that stupid, impossibly unpredictable moment. He had obviously imagined things going differently. Their first glance was supposed to be drenched in magic and memory, a story to tell their theoretical grandchildren that might instill a sense of true love in their pygmy souls. However, as is the case in most “true love” stories, romance was perhaps the furthest thing from either of their minds (although admittedly, this un-ladylike first move had done little to dull his affections).

That notwithstanding, if stories were ever told to their as yet non-existent children, she’d probably prefer that this initial moment were left out of their mythology.
Their eyes locked, their nostrils flared, and she was his.
Note: the thought, “she was his”, was far from mutually agreed upon.

In that passing instant, realistically, she probably hated him. However, as those brain scholars so often suggest, hate and love dabble on the same dance floors, and if nothing else, they would always have something to laugh about. Brent’s grandmother used to swear that the only reason she hadn’t plunged a corkscrew through the eye of his grandfather is that he simply knew too much, even the insignificant moments of passed gas that she so desperately pretended had never occurred. Familiarity breeds contempt…but also security.
The moment had passed, but it was impossible to forget, no matter how hard she wished for blunt head trauma and temporary memory loss for the grinning fool across from her. At least he was on her radar.

However, a few months later, by that particular mentally fogged morning, the natural garbage chute of her memory had erased that moment. Brent was just another face around the table, pensive and seemingly fascinated by creating the next viral sensation.
“What about the Olympics?” Ramirez choked out, regretting the words as soon as they had escaped his hungover throat.

“What’s the angle, man? It’s a fucking punch line in itself? No shit! Reality isn’t funny…” Radley quickly squashed the suggestion into the mass grave of bad ideas slowly being filled by the collection of hacks around the table.

“At least it’s current, man…what the fuck do you have for us, Radley?”

For the first time in longer than any of them could remember, Radley had nothing witty to spit back. Things hadn’t been going well that week. Wednesdays were for polishing, not producing, and everyone was on edge. The previous day’s pitches that had been tossed back-and-forth like rabid hot potatoes had never baked into a script; things at the writer’s table were getting scrappy.

“What about that athlete who pretended like he accidentally shot his wife. It’s still an Olympics angle…he could have had a secret career as a music producer or something. Every surface was soundproofed. I don’t know…” Miranda proffered quietly, as though terrified at daring to disturb their small universe of silence.

The room hushed; everyone was waiting for someone else to reject the idea, but in fact, there was no obvious reason why it wouldn’t work. Brent decided to throw himself on the chopping block right along with her; he quite literally had nothing to lose.

“That could work,” he supported her as innocuously as possible, although he saw himself as a bold white-hatted stranger, stepping up to defend the damsel’s thought.

Her eyes flicked to his, which were miraculously lined up with hers, for once. She cocked an eyebrow, as though waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop where he shot down the idea or tried to subvert it with his own twist. When no caveat was tagged on to the end of the idea, she offered him a slight smile before swinging her head back to the group…

Read “Laughing Last” in SN3: Bastille Day.

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